Ehrlich transit budget decried

City official tells House panel that 6-year plan shorts mass services


Baltimore's transportation chief criticized the Ehrlich administration's spending plans yesterday, saying that a recent six-year capital budget proposal shows a lack of commitment to mass transit in the region.

Alfred H. Foxx, director of the city's transportation department, also told a House of Delegates subcommittee that the state should study a subway as a potential east-west transit alternative - an option rejected by Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan as too expensive.

Flanagan just as sharply defended the administration's record on mass transit, pointing to hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed spending on major projects.

The two officials appeared at a hearing in Baltimore called by Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of the House transportation subcommittee, on mass transit service in the metropolitan area.

The transportation chiefs served as informal surrogates for their bosses, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., possible rivals in the 2006 gubernatorial election. It is a familiar role for Flanagan, a former legislator, but less so for Foxx, usually a soft-spoken technocrat.

Foxx zeroed in on the spending totals proposed for the Maryland Transit Administration in the "out years" - three or more years in the future - in the state's draft six-year capital transportation plan for 2006-2011. According to the Department of Legislative Services, the draft reduces capital spending for "transit system preservation" by $69 million compared with last year's version of the plan.

Flanagan said the figures for the years 2008-2010 are not meaningful because those numbers routinely increase as the budget year gets closer. But Foxx insisted that the figures, which are lower than comparable figures from previous years, represent "drastic" cuts in a category vital to the health of a system used largely by people who don't have the option of driving cars.

"The state cannot retreat from serving a population clearly in need. It seems to be doing that with funding for the MTA," Foxx said. "What it tells me is that there's really no commitment to transit."

Flanagan, meanwhile, pointed to the Maryland Transit Administration's achievements since Ehrlich became governor in 2003. He pointed to what he called a "500 percent" improvement in the miles buses travel between repairs, saying it illustrates the administration's commitment to maintaining the system.

"We have made tremendous strides in making the public transit system more reliable, more user-friendly," Flanagan said.

Flanagan was sometimes a target at the hearing to which Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, had invited several administration critics.

Last month, Flanagan led the way in implementing the most comprehensive restructuring of the Baltimore region's bus routes in more than three decades. He told the lawmakers yesterday that the Oct. 23 changes were successful and that the MTA had received fewer than 300 complaints in the following week. He said the agency would move forward next year with a second phase of the bus initiative - which could include some service cuts proposed but then withdrawn this year.

But other witnesses were quick to contradict Flanagan's claim of success - particularly in on-time performance and realistic scheduling. Drivers union leader Deoleous Bridges said the changes have failed to keep the buses on schedule. Transit advocate Ed Cohen complimented the MTA on new buses it has added to the fleet but said the schedule introduced last month isn't realistic and that some buses always run late. "The schedule is really a fantasy," he said.

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